Far From Over: Amherst College’s Persistent Sexual Misconduct Problem

Although it may have sunk from prominence, the College’s failure to adequately address sexual misconduct remains largely unsolved. Nearly a year after President Martin said “this must change, and change immediately”, the overwhelming majority of rapists at Amherst still never face disciplinary or legal action for their crimes, and a significant number of survivors and other students reporting sexual misconduct still feel unsupported, unheard, and underserved by the administration. This painful reality conflicts with the narrative created by the College’s administration and accepted by a troublingly large portion of the College community, which holds that whatever problems the College may have had are now more or less under control and that any sexual misconduct still occurs can be blamed on alcohol or some other easily localized bogeyman. Stopping sexual violence at the College requires overcoming this false conception and confronting the facts head on; admitting that the College (still) has a problem is the first step to recovery.

The Progress We’ve Made

In all fairness, the College has made significant progress since last year; some of the most egregious flaws in the College’s sexual misconduct policies and procedures have been corrected, and administrators now openly admit that sexual violence is a problem worth confronting—a huge improvement over the time when the College’s principal response to sexual misconduct was to hope no one found out about it. The new Title IX policy dramatically revises the hearing process, removing students, faculty, and staff from the hearing boards (a major privacy concern for many survivors) and requires the College to hire an independent investigator to gather evidence and prepare the groundwork for the hearings, taking some of the burden off of students reporting misconduct. Additionally, the new policy provides an explicit, affirmative definition of consent and offers criteria to determine when an individual is legally incapable of giving consent because of the influence of drugs or alcohol—an important change, since alcohol is involved in the majority of cases of sexual misconduct at the College.
In addition to the new Title IX policy, the College has also made some preventative changes, including increased education efforts both during and after Orientation and increased funding and resources for the Women’s and Gender Center, which now has a larger space in Keefe Campus Center and a full-time director, Danielle Hussey, to create programming and activities related to women’s and gender issues at the College. The College’s administrative structure and personnel has also changed pretty dramatically over the past year: the College now has a Provost, Peter Uvin, a new Dean of Students, and a new (interim) Dean of Student Conduct. One can only hope that new faces will translate to new ideas, although many of these people have only been at the College for a couple of months.

Despite the crucial improvements that the College has madet o its handling of sexual misconduct, meaningful reforms have been few and far between, as evidenced by the “Checklist of Action Taken” available on the College’s website. The list highlights how little the College has actually done in response to the crisis; most of the items are repetitive, communication-oriented ‘action items’ like “presented updates” or “solicited input” or “established a committee” or “sent letters” rather than concrete changes in the College’s approach to sexual respect. The checklist rarely mentions the results of investigations or what the College has accomplished in terms of actually preventing sexual misconduct, supporting survivors, and holding individuals accountable for sexual misconduct. Furthermore, showing only a completed checklist with no indication of what future action the College may have planned is more than a little misleading and contributes to the false narrative that the College has “fixed” the problem.

Missed Opportunities

Indeed, the true story is one of missed opportunities, bureaucratic stalling, and administrative failures and inaction, beginning in the immediate aftermath of Angie’s article and persisting to the present, where students continue to report frustration with the College handling of sexual misconduct and the majority of students who perpetrate sexual misconduct still do so with impunity, belying the College’s claims that it dramatically changed its stance on sexual misconduct on campus and leaving many students feeling failed and let down by the institutions created to protect them.
Last fall, the College established the Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct (SMOC), charged with making recommendations to President Martin for improvements in five key areas related to the College’s approach to sexual misconduct: the campus environment, resources, education, recent history, and policy and Title IX. In February, the committee released a report, “Toward a Culture of Respect,” which analyzed the College’s past handling of sexual misconduct—concluding that the College had failed on a systemic level to provide adequate resources and due process for victims of misconduct—and made 65 recommendations ranging from changes to orientation, restructuring the Dean of Students Office and improving health education to reconsidering the role of fraternities, tightening controls on alcohol, and increasing the number of women in the AAS.

Of the recommendations made in the report, many crucial changes have yet to be implemented or even addressed by the College. For instance, although the authors of the report “urged” the College to “intervene aggressively with student organizations that encourage hazing,” the College has failed to substantively address hazing, even though administrators have told me that they are well aware of the situation. In a conversation this summer, Dean Larimore told me that hazing was “on our radar screen,” but that he was “not sure how far along we are looking into it” and that there were no developed plans to address hazing at the present moment, even though hazing is a crime under Massachusetts state law punishable by up to 100 days in prison and is rampant among a number of student organizations, including several fraternities, sports teams, and acapella groups. Instead of confronting such a blatant and severe threat to student safety and wellbeing head on, the College seems to be content to stick its head in the sand and hope that nobody notices that they aren’t doing anything about it.

Beyond the hazing issue, the College has been slow to act on other important recommendations, such as the fraternity question, universal bystander training, unifying the Health and Counseling Centers, and addressing overlapping roles and potential conflicts of interest within the administration. Dean Larimore refused to respond to my questions to him in an email about these issues. Cullen Murphy ’74, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, responded to a question I sent him about the fraternity question with the following statement, which I have published here in full:

Every member of the board of trustees is grateful for the SMOC report, and we support President Martin and the administration as they address its many recommendations. The report called upon the board to look into the question of off-campus/underground fraternities, which we are going to do. In consultation with the administration, we expect to have a preliminary discussion at our October meeting and will take the matter from there.

In short, the Board has decided to maybe start talking about fraternities, almost nine months after being asked to do so. These aren’t just minor issues that the College hasn’t gotten around to addressing—these were some of the most significant recommendations in the report: bystander training was mentioned 12 separate times in the report; fraternities 13 times; the Counseling Center 22; hazing seven; and an entire section is devoted to the Dean of Students Office.

The other two organizations that took the lead on sexual respect this past year, the Title IX Committee and the Sexual Respect Task Force ran in to their own obstacles. The Title IX Committee, which included students for the first time last year (only after the College had made The New York Times for “putting rape in the spotlight”), had the task of bringing the College “voluntarily into compliance” with Title IX’s requirements for institutions of higher education with regards to sexual misconduct. However, early in the spring semester, most of the students on the committee had ended their involvement, either out of frustration with the committee’s lack of progress or because of scheduling conflicts, and a disagreement developed between student-activists and members of the committee over language in the first draft of the new policy that many activists found to be victim-blaming and discouraging. Because of this disagreement, the committee was unable to publish the revised policy until the end of the school year, too late to be of much use until this fall.

The Sexual Respect Taskforce did not fare much better. According to Ryan Arnold ’15E, who served on the Task Force, a large number of the student members of the Task Force left the group at the beginning of the spring semester to study abroad and were never replaced (sound familiar?), cutting out a large portion of the student voice on the Task Force. Arnold also said the Task Force’s efforts to implement changes at the College were hampered by bureaucratic insolvency and overextended work schedules. According to Arnold, the group, which had sought to implement changes in policy, education, and “other ways in which the official institution of the school interacts with the student body,” such as universal bystander training, improved educational efforts, and crisis training for faculty and staff members, largely failed to implement any of these changes because of its lack of autonomy and efficient communication structures. On top of that, Arnold said, Task Force members’ other commitments as students, faculty, and staff left the Task Force “overextended to the point of breaking” and unable to quickly and efficiently make decisions and take action to meet their goals. While the work that the Task Force could have made a big impact on the culture surrounding sexual respect at the College and empowered members of the College community to take an active stand against sexual misconduct, they did not receive the authority or the support they needed to put their ideas into practice.

Administrative Failures and Inaction

It’s possible that some individuals involved in making these reforms may disagree with my negative assessment of their efforts, but the ultimate test of any reform is its ability to resolve the problems it was intended to address. On that measure the College’s reforms have failed critically, leaving students unprotected and perpetrators of sexual misconduct unpunished. To assess the current state of affairs, I spoke with a number of activists and students who have dealt with the “reformed” Title IX system to get a “student’s-eye view” of the reporting/disciplinary process and the support structures that the College provides to victims. While most of these conversations were on background or off-the-record, what I am able to publish points to the continued failure of the College to adequately support students who experience sexual misconduct and tells a story of systematic negligence, miscommunication, and lax enforcement by the individuals whose job it is to protect students from sexual misconduct and hold perpetrators accountable.

Many students I spoke with reported highly negative experiences interacting with the administrators who are supposed to be looking out for their interests; clear trends that emerged in my conversations included a general lack of clarity about reporting procedures and who had a responsibility to report to whom, inappropriate questions from administrators about alcohol and sexual misconduct, violations of students’ privacy and confidentiality, second-guessing by administrators, lax enforcement of interim measures, delays in communication, and an overall failure to coordinate and communicate between the individuals involved in these cases.

One student who experienced sexual misconduct last semester agreed to speak to me on the record, albeit anonymously, and his experiences highlight many of the persistent problems with the College’s enforcement and support structures for sexual misconduct. After reporting abuse and harassment by another student, this student met with Dean of Student Conduct Susie Mitton Shannon and asked her to put in place a No Contact Order between him and the other student. However, ten days after the order was supposed to go into effect, the student says that he was contacted by the other student. After informing Dean Mitton Shannon of the incident, the student learned that she had not served the order because she did not meet with the other student before the start of summer break. Making things worse, Dean Mitton Shannon had never informed the student of this failure, giving him the false impression that he was protected by the order. He also claims that during this conversation, Dean Mitton Shannon inappropriately told him that the other student had objected to the order because “he couldn’t prove that he’d changed” if he couldn’t contact the student and asked if he was still sure he wanted to go through with the order. If this is what the College considers “putting students in the driver’s seat,” then it’s pretty clear not much has changed.

On the opposite side of the conduct process, not much has changed for perpetrators of sexual misconduct either. The College has not made any numbers available about the number of cases of sexual misconduct that have been reported since the reforms to the conduct process were put in place, but in a conversation I had with Dean Mitton Shannon in August, she told me “we’ve had a number of students that have reported, and we’ve had very few that wanted to go through the conduct process.” While Dean Mitton Shannon explained this number by attributing it to the College’s new philosophy of “putting survivors in the driver’s seat” when it comes to sexual misconduct and the inherently traumatic nature of the disciplinary process, the low number of students going through the disciplinary process should be extremely troubling. If perpetrators aren’t punished for their crimes, it sends the message that sexual misconduct is something that people can get away with and enables those individuals to keep on victimizing other individuals— studies on sexual assault suggest that the average rapist will assault four to five individuals in his lifetime; most rapists are serial rapists. Additionally, as Bolger pointed out to me in an interview in August:

I remember from my own experience and from talking to other survivors that when we talked to the deans, we were told that the conduct process was going to be so difficult and so traumatic and so retriggering and so awful: ‘Are you sure want to do it?’ That’s a problem for two reasons: First, it’s discouraging survivors subtly or not so subtly from going forward; that’s another issue of practice and implementation. Second, that raises the basic question of why is it so traumatic and retriggering, why is it such an awful process? Maybe we should be fixing that instead of discouraging people from going through it.

I contacted Suzanne Coffey, Interim Title IX Coordinator, to get her perspective on the matter. She told me making a complaint “is the purview of the survivor” and said that she believed that the Title IX system has improved dramatically since last year and that many of the issues I raised above (delays, miscommunications, etc.) have been addressed:

The processes we designed and completed in the spring of 2013 set a different standard for the timeliness of communication…Our new standard is days at most, or hours—if the report warrants immediate action. Reports, no matter where they originate, come to the Title IX Coordinator and the Chief of Police. It is the responsibility of those two people to determine whether action must happen within hours, or whether the Title IX Team should review the course of action either by special meeting or at the next regularly scheduled meeting that week.
We believe the reporting process is much clearer now than a year, or even six months, ago. Training has occurred among groups including RC, PAs, orientation leaders, and key staff members. We also alerted the faculty to their responsibility last spring, and this fall have instructed new faculty about mandatory reporting.

Nevertheless, Coffey’s responses are concerning. Instead of spinning the low number of perpetrators receiving sanctions as a successful outcome of “putting survivors in the driver’s seat,” the College should be addressing the fact that, when given the choice, the overwhelming majority of victims don’t want to pursue disciplinary action against their perpetrators. Moreover, the College should be examining the possibility that students reporting misconduct don’t pursue disciplinary action because the process itself still has flaws. Victims don’t avoid disciplinary action because they don’t want to bring their perpetrators to justice; they choose not to because, in far too many cases, the disciplinary process entails more costs to victims than benefits. A disciplinary process that doesn’t give students who experience sexual misconduct the resources and options they need to feel safe and healthy on campus violates the essential spirit (if not the letter) of Title IX’s mandate for equal opportunity for all students in higher education.

I worry that some readers may feel that I am being overly critical of the school and its administration, that I have an agenda that biases my perspective, that I’m muck-raking and looking for problems where none exist. That could not be farther from the truth. I would love nothing more than to report that the College has taken a vigorous and active stance against sexual misconduct, that victims of misconduct feel supported and protected by the administration, that students who engage in sexual misconduct face sanctions for their actions. Unfortunately, the school has continued to downplay its difficulties and focus more on its reputation than on the wellbeing and safety of its students. So long as that is the case, we as students have a duty to speak out and demand that the College do everything in its power to fight sexual misconduct and promote a safe, respectful environment for all students. In the words of Angie Epifano: “Sexual assault is not just my experience or your experience or their experience. It is unfortunately part of human experience, and for that, all humans should be advocates.”